Why do we take this trip? Well to make money … I have simply got to make a stake some way, for I don’t want to lose the farm and it is the only way I can see of saving it.
SPOKESMAN-REVIEW, MAY 5, 1896
Sometime during these vulnerable months of desperation, Helga received a rare offer through “the instrumentality of a friend in the East.”1 A “wealthy woman” in New York or “eastern parties” proposed to pay Helga and her daughter Clara $10,000 if they would walk unescorted across America and meet certain stipulations of a written contract.2 As she considered this surprising turn of events, she could hear the surging power of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation (O.R.&N.) train as it whistled by their farm, a sound of invitation coming and going to the Spokane terminal. A transcontinental train brought her own family west, and Helga began imagining walking the rails that linked the United States into one accessible continent. Sometime in April, her days of deliberation ended. Helga not only decided she could do this, but that she must. Now came the hard part, explaining to her family what she knew she wanted to do.
After the months of worry and grief, the wager must have seemed like an open door, a viable way to solve an intractable problem. She may have even believed it came as a stunning answer to her prayers for finding a way to keep their family together. Helga knew that $10,000 would not only pay the taxes and mortgage and provide survival money until Ole’s health returned, but also that such abundance would assure educational opportunities for their remaining eight children. Clara and Olaf already demonstrated they could qualify to attend the new Washington State College in Pullman or the four-year private college in Spokane, and she believed the younger children seemed equally bright. What futures they could have!
The sponsoring party wanted the women to wear a type of bicycle skirt introduced at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and being promoted for “the new woman” in America. The light-gray flannel costume included a short skirt that fell several inches below the knee, leggings, and a jacket.3 Helga always dressed in the prevailing Victorian fashion that required women to wear full-length dresses or skirts that hid any “immodest” display of an ankle. These heavy petticoated garments, however, sometimes using over twelve yards of fabric, significantly confined the physical activities of women. When the bicycle craze emerged in the 1890s, the long skirts and slips hampered safe, comfortable cycling.
Fashion designers solved this with the “reform dress,” but convincing American women that shorter skirts or bloomers were respectable presented a formidable challenge. Both the thought of women riding bicycles and daring such a radical change in dress met stiff resistance in some circles. The Rescue League of Washington formed to fight against women riding “the devil’s agent” and wearing bicycle apparel. The organization launched a national crusade to ask clergymen and women to suppress the bicycle craze because of its vulgarity.4 If the fashion industry, however, could use creative promotion to convince large numbers of proper women to shift their sentiments and wear the new bicycle skirts, the potential economic impact was high. Though gaining acceptance in the fashion centers of Paris and New York, few women in the rest of America wore such new fashions. The 1895 Montgomery Ward catalog, the largest mail-order business in the United States and a clothing resource for women, did not show a single shorter skirt for women to purchase.5 Women had not forgotten the ridicule directed at earlier reformers who introduced the bloomer, a comfortable fashion that failed to be widely adopted. The sponsors could benefit from the attention Helga and Clara’s audacious venture would surely generate. A reporter noted, “Mrs. Estby and daughter will be paid a certain sum of money upon their arrival in New York for their services in advertising the dress.”6
Besides serving as a walking advertisement for fashion reform, the sponsors wanted this cross-continent achievement to prove the endurance of women.7 As America entered the cusp of the twentieth century, progressive “new women” were challenging the common beliefs about females that often limited their choices. Biological assumptions about women’s inferior physical capacities still existed, including that women were physically delicate and needed to be protected.8 In the Victorian era, fragility in urban society women even became fashionable. “Women are too apt to regard delicacy, in its physical sense of weakness, as an essential element of beauty,” noted one critical observer on women’s deliberate attempts at acting frail for social prestige. “This is a false and dangerous notion, which finds expression in the affectation of paleness of complexion and tenuity of figure, which are deliberately acquired by a systematic disobedience of the laws of health.”9 Yet, physicians and advice books reinforced the prevailing belief that a woman’s biology made her susceptible to disease and ill health. Physicians warned that if women made exceptional exertion, they were far more inclined to nervous exhaustion, known as neurasthenic disease, than men. The neurasthenic was “delicate and high strung, subject to fits of anxiety or even hysteria that could erupt at any time. By virtue of their anatomy, all women were susceptible and therefore had to avoid anxiety-producing and enervating situations.”10
Physicians warned young women of Clara’s age to curtail their physical and intellectual activity during their menstrual periods and gave medical advice such as, “Long walks are to be avoided.… also long wheel rides … in fact, all severe physical exertion.… Intense mental excitement as a fit of anger or grief or even intense joy may be injurious.”11 When Helga asked her eighteen-year-old unmarried daughter to exert herself so strenuously, this ignored society’s advice that young women must guard their reproductive health. Helga’s own years of hard work as a young mother on the prairie gave her confidence that doctors and society underestimated women’s physical strength.
Although remnants of these beliefs permeated America, especially among the privileged classes of American women, these sentiments were being challenged by 1896. The opening of college opportunities for women also brought the development of physical education classes, partly as a way for colleges to develop women’s strength and to prove that intense academic studying would not endanger their health. As the first women graduated from medical school, they began speaking to public audiences on the values of physical training. Speaking to women’s clubs in the East, Dr. Mary Taylor Bissell claimed that physical exercise provided women, as well as men, with “endurance, activity and energy, presence of mind, and dexterity.” She insisted that the value of physical exercise “cannot be overestimated as a sedative to emotional disturbances, and a relief from that nervous irritability and hypochondria so often engendered by a sedentary or an idle life.”12 The sponsor of the wager may have seen the positive health benefits that emerged when women, freed from constraining dress, could pursue an active physical life. Or, it simply may have been an advertising ploy to sell more reform dresses. Whichever, if two women accomplished the stunning act of walking across the mountains, plains, and deserts of America’s vast continent, news of this achievement could cause a monumental shift in the public’s perception of women’s strength.
The “eastern parties” wrote up a formal contract with certain stipulations and a seven-month deadline that Helga agreed to and signed. Required to leave with only $5 apiece, they needed to support themselves “without begging” along the way, earning enough for food, lodging, and replacement clothes and shoes. It seems likely their required visits to political leaders in the state capitals would be interpreted as living proof of the economic capability and physical strength of ordinary women. Helga and Clara’s actions could speak volumes.13
Helga planned to take extensive notes along the way and write a book of their adventures in hopes that the contracting parties might help sell this to the highest bidder for publication. This did not appear to be a stipulation of the sponsoring party, rather it was Helga’s own attempt to increase her income.
From the beginning, they designed their monumental effort to be a public event. The first instruction from the sponsors required going to a portrait studio in Spokane for a formal photograph to send to the New York World newspaper. This progressive Pulitzer paper featured a weekly news column entitled “Women of the Week: Some extraordinary doings of the New Sisterhood in Unusual Fields of Feminine Effort.” In the April 26, 1896 column, an announcement of the intentions of the “Two Women’s Great Tramp” to walk from Spokane to New York appeared, along with a formal portrait of Helga and Clara. Noting that the women will break all records in the line of pedestrians and will travel rapidly, with very light equipment, the reporter alluded to the high-stake risks or folly of this transcontinental trek with the assessment, “They intend to write up their adventures afterwards if they survive the experiment.”14
(following pages) Helga and Clara had this photograph taken in a Spokane studio in April 1896 to send to the New York World announcing their upcoming trip. It served as the basis for a photoengraving included in the article “Two Women’s Great Tramp,” which appeared in the New York World on April 25, 1896.
Photograph courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection.
Photoengraving courtesy General Research Division,
The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
Detail of this photograph on this page.
Two Women’s Great Tramp.
The Spokane newspaper offices saw the startling New York World picture and article and published their first acknowledgment of the Estby women’s trip in the May 4, 1896, issue of the Daily Chronicle. Entitled “Tramp to New York: An Eastern Paper Tells of Spokane Women’s Plans,” it told how Mrs. H. Estby and daughter are the “latest among the new women of this section of the country to attract attention in the east.”15
For some reason, Helga gave the Spokane city address of 1725 Pacific Avenue where their children worked occasionally as domestics and gardeners, probably while attending a Spokane high school.16 This distinctive home of the Rutter family, a leading Spokane businessman and his wife, was designed by a prestigious Northwest architect, Kirkland Cutter, and located in Spokane’s wealthiest neighborhood. Because of this, the newspaper ended with a note of skepticism. “The story is an interesting one and the only fault found with it at this end of the line is that no person named Estby lives, or ever has lived at the address given nor can such a name be found in any of the city directories.”17
To accept this wager meant Helga and Clara needed to attempt something no unescorted women before them had ever accomplished. They must undertake the hazards of crossing a continent still made up of vast stretches of wild frontier country and lofty rugged mountain passes; traverse through several Indian reservations; weather the potential ravages of blistering heat and freezing snow; walk unprotected from the threat of sudden cyclones, tornadoes, forest fires, or flash floods; resist unsavory men tempted to rob, rape, or even kill them; and survive in wilderness territory unscathed from frightened or hungry bears, mountain lions, wolves, rattlesnakes, or other wild animals. To avoid getting lost in the sparsely populated West, Helga planned to follow the railroad tracks. This meant they must negotiate long, high trestles crossing over swift rivers. And they would be wearing full-length Victorian dresses until they reached Salt Lake City.
Her husband, her Scandinavian neighbors, and her children voiced their fears and their questions. She was risking danger to herself and her daughter. How could they protect their “purity” and safety against rough men, hobos, and vagabonds who might consider women alone as easy prey? With the nation enduring harsh economic times, many unemployed men hung out along the rails to sneak rides. They could starve, unable to find food in the hundreds of miles between towns in the West, or become ill or injured while sloshing in freezing rain or snow, especially in the Rocky Mountains. Clara might be physically strong, but Helga’s health clearly was more precarious after her surgery, latest childbirths, and a recent skirmish with mild consumption. Where would they find safe sleeping quarters every night, food to eat, or places to bathe, toilet, and wash their clothes when in the wilderness?
Helga heard these fears and admitted to some of her own, particularly the potential danger of being accosted by men. After entering into the contract, she considered what they needed to carry for protection. She and Clara, perhaps through a Spokane friend of the eastern sponsor, visited Spokane’s Mayor Horatio Belt and requested a formal letter of introduction. He agreed to provide this document and even arranged for it to be stamped with the State Seal and the signature of the Washington State treasurer. The mayor wrote his equivalent of a calling card that asked for “kindly considerations” to Helga and Clara and affirmed that “Mrs. H. Estby has been a resident of this city and vicinity for the last nine years and is a lady of good character and reputation.”18
On Tuesday, May 5, at 12:19, Helga and Clara, dressed “warmly but plainly,” departed from the front of the Chronicle newspaper office at the corner of Post and Main Street to begin their arduous journey to the New York World newspaper office over 3000 miles away. Carrying only small bundles and a few dollars in cash, they followed the O.R.&N. railroad route for twenty-eight miles back to their home in Mica Creek. An interview covered in that afternoon’s paper showed Helga’s desperation and determination as she answered the question of “why they are taking this trip.”
“Well, to make money,” she admitted, as she described having been laid up with her own ill health for some time, and her fear they will lose their home and farm because they could not pay their taxes and mortgage. In a retort to all the doubters who urged her to reconsider because such a venture was impossible and inappropriate for women, she optimistically insisted that “they anticipate no great difficulty in making their way,” and that “we have made up our minds as well as all arrangements.”19
She mentions to one reporter, “We are just going for pleasure and to make some money,” suggesting she actually looked forward to this new journey across America with her firstborn daughter, Clara. She initially appeared relaxed about the time the trip would take, expecting six months or more, and planned to be back home by Christmas. She also expressed hope that newspapers might buy articles describing their adventures along the route.
Choosing Clara to accompany her gave Helga a companion who shared her own sense of strength, intelligence, and sensitivity. As the oldest of their nine children, Clara always assumed responsibility, especially during the years when Helga’s accident left her with such debilitating illness.20 She also showed independence of thought, disagreeing with her mother on the political issues surrounding 1896. With day after day of long hours of walking ahead, Clara as a traveling partner promised interesting conversations on all that they might see. An engaging and attractive young woman, she augmented the image that mother and daughter were respectable and deserved to be treated like ladies. Being chosen by her mother did not necessarily mean she wanted to embark on this risky venture, but Clara knew Helga needed her presence.
What Helga carried inside seemed as important as the items in her satchel. Emboldened now with a decisive plan of action, she exuded a spirit of confidence, indomitable determination, and engaging intelligence, which reporters noticed. Free from the predictable daily responsibilities of birthing, nursing, and raising children that had shaped the past twenty years, Helga sounded excited about the unpredictable “pleasurable” adventures open to them as tourists when they visited major cities in America.21
And she carried the immigrant’s mantra—to improve one’s lot in life, one must be willing to journey into the unknown. During her stepfather’s journey to America and her husband’s move to homestead in Minnesota, she had followed them. Now Helga made her own decision on how to improve their family’s life through intrepid travel. She was determined to try, despite the risks.
But this choice meant she stepped beyond traditional boundaries for women in the 1890s. Although women settling the West lived with much less rigidity to roles than eastern middle-class women, the Victorian concept of separate spheres for men and women still prevailed. Magazines, literature, and sermons elevated a woman’s role in caring for her home and children, and a man’s role in the public marketplace. Motherhood, contended the editors of the popular Godey’s Lady’s Book, was the most “striking and beautiful” aspect of the “female character,” providing the “fulfillment of a woman’s physiological and moral destiny.”22 The widespread belief that mothers set the moral tone of a home still found expression in science, religion, and political structures of late-nineteenth-century America. “Heaven,” wrote one advocate of women’s elevated moral role, “has given special favors to your sex, through this simple fact or principle of dependence. It is your work to soften and refine men. Men living without you, by themselves, become savage and sinful. The purer you are, the more are they restrained, and the more are they elevated.”23
Perhaps even more unsettling than the tangible dangers was Helga’s choice to break the intangible taboo, particularly strong in Norwegian-American communities, against a mother leaving one’s children. She would be leaving her eight remaining children, including Lillian, a two-year-old toddler too young to even understand why her mother left. Many believed that no proper moral woman would dare consider such a thing. Ole’s best friend, Martin Siverson, clearly disapproved and could not comprehend how a mother could walk away from her family responsibilities. He expressed what others in her Norwegian community were thinking, “Women just didn’t do such things!”24
But Helga not only held confidence in herself but also in her family. While recognizing this journey would be challenging, she believed Ole and their children could help make this work. She had returned to the Midwest for several months three years earlier in 1893, and the family proved they could sustain one another. Besides, Olaf, seventeen, Ida, fifteen, and Bertha, now fourteen, were considered old enough to work for others, so they certainly could help keep house, care for their younger brothers and sisters, and assist with the farm. Arthur, eleven, and eight-year-old Johnny could take care of the chickens and pigs and help some with four-year-old William and little Lillian. Ole’s sister, Hanna, had emigrated from Norway and worked in Spokane as an ironer at the steam laundry. She could help on weekends.25 Helga believed their kind neighbors would help in an emergency; besides, she planned to be back by Christmas. Because Ole was unable to work in carpentry until his back improved, he certainly could watch the youngest ones, Lillian and William, when school started in the fall. After all, she had managed to care for four children under age six in their one-room sod home. Ole loved the children and was a good father, and with Ida’s and Bertha’s help, she felt confident he could take care of them. She knew this daily care of children and the home was a rare role for a Scandinavian father, but their family life was in serious danger. Western women often entered into “men’s work” to sustain a family, and she believed Ole could adapt. Maintaining proper roles provided no viable solution to their problems.
Helga acknowledged the opposition she encountered before she left Spokane. To one reporter she stated: “We were told at the start we would never make the trip, but we are confident of getting through successfully.”26 Part of her confidence came from a previous venture when she successfully walked four hundred miles alone. Although the place and reason for this earlier trek is unclear, perhaps in the Midwest to visit her family, it clearly provided an experience that infused her with a belief in their potential success.27 To Helga, the promise of the $10,000 reward outweighed any threats of failure. She faced the question, “what does fear keep you from doing?” and decided she was unwilling to let fear or disapproval keep her from action. Feeling her family’s future lay in her hands, she knew she must try to win the wager. So, with Clara at her side, Helga turned to the East.